Monday, February 28, 2011

Happy birthday, Thad!

Today we'll be out celebrating my dear husband Thad's birthday! He's a truly wonderful Catholic husband and father, and I know how very blessed we are by his loving presence in our lives.

I've written long and mushy blog posts about Thad before, but he's asked me not to today--he's sitting right here, and like any guy he gets embarrassed at extravagant praise. So you'll just have to take my word for how amazingly wonderful he is. ;)

Happy birthday, love! And many, many more!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The real problem

Not much time to blog today; tonight is the annual parish Spaghetti Dinner and Talent Show, and our choir has a couple of fun pieces to perform. I always enjoy this--but, sadly, am battling a cold that started up Wednesday. I should still be able to sing with the group, but if you can offer a quick prayer for me I'd appreciate it!

Deacon Greg Kandra's blog is one I enjoy daily, and I especially enjoyed this recent article he wrote at Patheos:

Some months back, a woman came to the rectory to register her newborn for a baptism. As she filled out the paperwork, I explained that one of the godparents had to be Catholic, but that the other, if necessary, could be a baptized Christian.

She put down the pen and furrowed her brow.

"What's the difference?"

That same day, another new mother also arrived to start the process for a baptism. I looked over the paperwork and noticed that she had left blank the question on the form that asked if the parents had been married by a Catholic priest. I asked her about it.

"Well," she began, "I'm not sure if she was a priest . . . "

I smiled. "If it was a she," I explained, "it wasn't a Catholic priest."

She brightened. "Oh," she exclaimed excitedly. "Then she must have been a nun!"

Just another morning at the rectory.

We hear again and again about the empowered laity—that more people in the pews are taking the Church into their own hands, studying ministry programs, delving into the documents of Vatican II, taking graduate courses on theology, boning up on canon law, and learning the ins and outs of parish administration.

I'm sure that's true, somewhere. But the pitiful state of catechesis over the last generation or so has left many nominal Catholics I encounter with only a passing familiarity with the sacraments, the liturgy, and even the basic tenets of the faith. Add to that the dismaying fact that, by most counts, only about a quarter of all Catholics come to church every Sunday, and you end up with parishes that are filled with people who are, more often than not, baffled. They don't really understand what's going on around them. And they're surprisingly outspoken about it.

Read the whole thing here.

It's hard for me to see the main problem in the Church today as being one of a lack of intentional discipleship, when it's so easy to be aware of the abundance of ignorance.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Be faithful

I should say at the outset that I don't believe most dreams have supernatural significance, and the one I'm about to describe is not any different. There is a natural reason why I had this particular dream; I'd been asked to pray for an orthodox priest under some duress from his bishop, and though I had not yet had the privelege of meeting this priest I'd heard many good things about him. What with thinking about his situation and praying for him, I was not surprised at all to have him show up in a couple of dreams--but as this one was interesting and has some relevance to what I want to say today I share it here.

I dreamed this several years ago, yet it has remained rather vivid in my mind, as some of those short, near-dawn dreams often do. In my dream I was kneeling at Mass, right up in the front row; the priest I'd been praying for was saying Mass, and was just at the moment of the Consecration.

As he elevated the chalice I saw that it was a clear glass or crystal chalice--and had I been awake, I'd have seen that as incongruous with this priest's deep orthodoxy and reverence for the liturgy (as, no doubt, would he), since such chalices aren't generally permitted. But in the dream there was a reason for this chalice--for as the priest concluded the elevation, he came out from behind the altar, walked over to me, pressed the chalice against my forehead, and asked, gently, "What do you see?"

I peered into the depths of the ruby-red Precious Blood, and a distinct picture began to emerge. I saw a mountain, completely encircled by a road which led up it in a spiral. About halfway up the mountain was the Ark of the Covenant. Two groups of people were carrying the Ark--but one was trying to carry the Ark up to the summit of the mountain, while the other was trying to take the Ark back to the mountain's base. As they struggled with each other, the Ark would go up a little and back down a little, but the end result was that the Ark remained in the middle of the mountain.

Out loud, though, in answer to the priest's question, I said, "I see Israel and Judah, contending with each other, throughout the ages, down to the present day."

And the priest asked me, even more gently, "And what does it mean?"

"It means, 'Be faithful,'" I replied without hesitation. I then woke up completely, the way you sometimes do after a vivid dream.

I've had plenty of occasions to think of that dream since then, and this most present occasion brought it to my mind again. There are bound to be times when sincere Catholics disagree with each other about the specific application of some definitive teaching, and this debate we've had about lying, about Live Action, and about the moral law is an example of that time.

But whether we agree more with this gentleman (as I do) or with this one, we are, for the most part, trying to answer that command--not merely a dream, but the general command to Christians everywhere: be faithful. This is not a matter where some Catholics are dissenting from something that has already been clearly defined, such as the morality of abortion or artificial contraception. Those sorts of settled matters don't really allow for varied interpretations, and the Church has been very careful to be very clear.

The Church will, at some point, be equally clear about whether sting operations, citizen journalism, police work, spying, witness protection programs, childhood traditions such as Father Christmas or La Befana or St. Nicholas, etc. must all be unequivocally condemned as immoral lying, or whether some are exceptions, or whether (though I rather doubt it) all of them are. The question we have to ask ourselves is: what if the Church declares that I am wrong?

I've said before: if the Church ever condemns the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus pretense as immoral lying, I will publicly retract every word I've ever said or written on the subject and write with equal energy to fight against the practice, as I've previously written in favor of it. Similarly, if the Church ever declares that citizen journalists may licitly say they are who they are not and make other false statements in the line of their work, I will apologize for having taken the opposite position and make it clear that I am willing to be guided by the Church in this as in all matters.

Because what matters more than online moral theology discussions and Internet bloviating and the joy of blogging is the message of that dream of mine: be faithful. It is my intention to follow Christ and His Church in all things, come what may.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sex, lies, and Santa Claus

I realize some of my regular readers may be growing a bit weary with the discussion on the morality of lying; that's because most of my regular readers probably don't have a problem with the morality of lying, but are willing to accept unquestioningly that lying is a sin and we're not supposed to do it--which is a good thing.

But I continue to post on the topic because I don't think I've covered all my bases yet; at least, I'm finding questions raised here that I've covered briefly elsewhere, and it's only fair to my readers who aren't reading the zillion plus comment threads elsewhere that I post here, too.

For instance, Lindsay asks below this post about the Santa Claus question. I know I've discussed this before when the whole Santa debate has come up, but it bears repeating, so I hope you'll indulge me. The reason the Santa story isn't a lie is because it is a myth or fable, which is a kind of truth, not a species of lie. Myths and fables are stories told to children to draw them toward an adult reality which they are not yet capable of grasping. No three-year-old I've ever known has the capacity to understand that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in the fullness of time became man, was incarnate in the womb of the Virgin, was born in a stable at Bethlehem, and thus began His earthly mission of salvation in which He healed the breach between God and Man which had persisted since the Fall. We can, if we like, tell the child the great truth that Jesus, Emmanuel, is God's greatest gift to us, since He is God giving Himself to us in an efficaciously salvific way--but the child will probably tune out the words she doesn't understand and imagine Mary and Joseph arriving at the stable to see a large beribboned box on the manger which, when opened, revealed God's gift, in much the same way that I, as a child, thought that the statement "Mary gave us the Rosary!" meant that Mary went around with a little cart in Israel after the Ascension giving people handmade rosaries and telling them what it all meant. Which is cute, perhaps, but not even remotely close to the literal truth of it all.

So when we allow children to believe that Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) will bring them gifts to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus, we are teaching them two things that are true: that Saint Nicholas is a saint who has a special love and care for children, as he is one of their dear patrons; and that Christmas is about a Gift, something they will understand better when they are older. We are making use of a story to teach them these things, and before they are very much older they will come to recognize that while some of the elements of the story are not literally true, the symbolic meaning which transcends the merely literal is truer than they could possibly have imagined in the days of their child-like glee.

To put it simply, there is a good reason why we tell children truths via myths and fables, fairy tales and stories, and even the old wives' tales about wearing proper coats or feeding a cold. We do this because children's minds are a delightful mix of fantasy and reality at all times, because their powerful imaginations are sometimes greater prepared to receive truths than their still-forming rational intellects, and because there are some truths which, no matter how we try to explain them to a child, are simply not accessible to them yet.

Take, for instance, sex.

There has been quite a trend lately to start telling even tiny tots all about the human body and its capacity for reproduction, in scientific and clinical terms. Some parents do this because they shun "lying" and insist on telling the two-year-old just exactly how his baby sister got into mommy's tummy--oh, wait, into her uterus--while others believe that child development requires frank talk about sex as soon as a young child asks any questions. I was not a part of that generation and don't really think it's a good idea; while you can, certainly, give a child all the anatomical names for body parts and explain to him or her using simple charts or diagrams just what reproductive activity involves, you can't give him or her an adult understanding of these matters. Which means, at the very least, you can't stop him or her from shouting out in church, at a crowded restaurant, or on a plane "My [anatomically correct body part] is really itchy!" or from telling a pregnant neighbor, helpfully and in detail, just how that baby got into her uterus.

So I side with those who employ the ancient parental wisdom of answering little ones' questions about body parts or babies with a bit of euphemism and a bit of story-telling; after all, it is true that a little boy's baby sister is a gift from God, and that when a man and a woman get married babies are God's gift to them; but if the child then imagines that same big bow-covered box jostling around in his mommy's "tummy," and gets the idea that the doctor's job is to remove the present so Mommy and Daddy can open it--well, he will come to an adult understanding soon enough, and in the meantime what he has been told is true. In fact, in some senses, the sentence "Babies are a gift from God," is much truer than the literal truth.

Now, what's different between employing myths, fables and stories in order to help us enter into a child's world to communicate with children, and the sort of thing Live Action did?

It is not that adults can't sometimes benefit from stories. Our Lord, after all employed many parables, and His adult listeners learned great truths from them. But the difference with adults is that they usually know they are being told a story. We purchase or watch fiction, we listen to a homily containing a humorous anecdote without needing to believe that the joke is literally true; we have, to put it simply, outgrown the childish state of seeing stories as real and reality as a story in its own right. Parents of small children see, and lament a little, the movement past the "everything is a story" age. As a child approaches and then passes the age of reason, they begin to have that same adult awareness of what is truth and what is fiction; in fact, if they are being told a story at that age they will ask with precocious cynicism, "Did this really happen?" It is a distinction that would have escaped them a few years earlier.

The Live Action operatives were, of course, speaking to adults, and they were not presenting themselves as actors or storytellers. And they were not trying to tell a larger truth by their words; their words were intended to cover up the truth--because the truth was that they were Live Action operatives bent on tricking the Planned Parenthood workers into being apparently willing to violate statutory rape notification laws, among other things. And so there is no loophole of the "Santa" variety for adults telling demonstrably false things to other adults--because adults are not children, and the fact that we sometimes tell children truths via stories and fables which the children may accept as literally true for that glorious period we call childhood is not in any way the same thing as lying to one's fellow grown-ups.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


After following the wide discussion about the morality of lying all over the Catholic blogosphere last week, I continue to be amazed by the similarities between this conversation and the various conversations about the morality of torture.

One dissimilar element is that the lying debate has been comparatively civil. I guess it makes sense that people will be more likely to come to verbal blows about torture than lying.

Otherwise, though, there have been plenty of similarities, and one of the most glaring is that although it would seem that those who believe there ought to be exceptions from the general prohibition against lying would have the burden of proving that position, the argument has tended to spin about in the other direction; that is, those who think that what Mark Shea has tagged "Lying for Jesus" is morally correct are tending to insist that the side that believes that all lying is immoral must prove that they are right.

To this end, the proponents of the idea that some sort of lying must either be "not-lying" and therefore morally acceptable or else that sometimes lying is a morally good option have created a hypothetical involving World War II, Christians hiding Jews, and Nazis at the door. The hypothetical goes like this: You answer your door to Nazis demanding to know if Jews are being hidden inside. Do you stick to moral purity, refuse to lie, and give the Jews away either by telling the Nazis where they are or by your guilty silence? Or do you lie heroically and save the day?

All objections to this hypothetical are dismissed. When, for instance, I pointed out that as a redhead with a redhead's tendency to blush scarlet under duress I am, for the most part, a terrible liar, and would endanger my hypothetical Jewish friends in such a scenario more by lying than by keeping my pie-hole shut, and when others offered similar objections, we were scolded by the person raising the hypothetical for not taking the hypothetical seriously.

Now, my criticism of this particular tactic should not be taken as a criticism of all those who are discussing this issue rationally and calmly, even those who hold the position that either lying may sometimes be moral or the definition of lying needs to be amended to allow a sort of "not-lying" which looks exactly like lying but is permitted in some circumstances. The reason I criticize it is because it is a tactic that has cropped up in the torture debate, the abortion debate, the debate over the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, and now the debate over the morality of lying.

In the torture debate, the hypothetical was the Ticking Time Bomb--would debaters really refuse to sully their consciences with a little light torture to save the world, or a city, or at least somebody? In the abortion debate, questioners ask: would pro-lifers really let a mother die rather than abort an embryo the size of a grain of rice? In the nuclear weapons debate, the question is: would you really have condemned all those American soldiers to die by forcing them to invade Japan rather than authorize the use of a couple of atomic weapons? And now: would you really condemn your Jewish neighbors to death rather than tell a little fib to the Nazi at the door?


And if you object that the TTB scenario isn't real, that pro-lifers care about the mother's life as well as the child's, that regardless of the what-ifs it was morally wrong to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that no Nazi worth his salt was going to take the word of a nervous homeowner that no, seriously, there weren't any Jewish people within the house, your objections are brushed aside as irrelevant, with that one little word: really?

As in: Did God really say you couldn't eat any of the fruit in this Garden? Oh, just the one tree? Really? He said you'd die if you ate it? He didn't mention that you'd become like gods, knowing good and evil? Really?

We should never base our moral conduct on what we might hypothetically do in a dire, life-or death situation, because the sad truth is that most of us, perhaps all of us, would be tempted to commit sins in such situations, and might actually go on to commit those sins. But that many of us would sin is not somehow proof that the action contemplated is actually morally good; on the contrary, it is a reminder of the ubiquity of sin since the Tempter's first employment of that ironic "really?" in the Garden when he tricked our first parents into disobeying the law of God.


A suggested bulletin improvement

Thanks to New Advent and Father Z., my post below about church bulletins as parish newspapers has gotten far more hits than I would have expected (and I do appreciate it). I find it interesting that there seem to be three different "takes" on the subject:

1. It was (and still is) a very bad idea to use church bulletins to publish the amounts of money people donated every week, as used to be somewhat common.

2. It would be a good idea to use the parish bulletin to publish a list of grievances about parish life.

3. It would be a good idea for pastors to use the bulletin as a catechetical tool to reinforce efforts to educate adult Catholics in the faith.

I agree with number one, am somewhat ambivalent about number two, and agree with number three with one caveat.

First, I do think it was a bad idea to publish the amounts of money people donated--and if it still happens anywhere, it continues to be a bad idea. Jesus Himself told us that when we gave charitably, our left hands ought not to know what our right hands were doing. It is in the secular world that donors like to have their names emblazoned across buildings, or at the very least, etched into a nice plaque somewhere. If the idea was to create a little gentle pressure, then how many families gave money only so they would be noticed as having done so--thus removing anything meritorious about the gift?

While I think that the problem of Catholics not giving generously enough at the parish level is a real one, it's not the sort of problem that can be fixed by heaping public adulation on givers and scorn on those who don't give. That this custom has (mostly) died out is a good thing.

Second, I can understand, and even sympathize with, those who think that the parish bulletin is the place for scores of "gentle reminders" to people to participate more in the life of the Church, to avoid chatting in the church proper as opposed to the vestibule or outside, to avoid coming to Mass when ill, to stay away from shady apparitions or chancy groups or movements, to quit clapping during Mass and so forth. Unfortunately, I can easily see this getting out of hand, or even losing its efficacy if every week there's a new "don't" under a cute headline in the parish bulletin. And then, if there is a real problem that needs to be widely addressed, the ability to address it within the bulletin (as well as elsewhere) is going to be diminished.

Third, I do think this is the right track, and that it's not used nearly enough. Some bulletins have a "From the Pastor's Desk" sort of column which would be ideal for the purpose of some catechesis, but many do not. I think some priests are reluctant to start such a column within their parish bulletin because of the time it would take to write something each week--but even if Father could only quote from the Catechism with a brief discussion of the passage in question, that would be more exposure to the Catechism than many adult Catholics currently have (sad though that is).

My one caveat comes because of a dear priest whose parish I've had the privilege of attending; this priest is a model for the priesthood, giving so much time and effort to his parishioners each week that he makes even ordinary hardworking priests look like slackers. One of this priest's customs is to create a bulletin which is nearly a dozen pages in length each week; he lists his daily (ahem) confession times along with the daily Mass and various religious instruction times, and as these things can vary each week he needs a somewhat lengthy bulletin. The drawback, however, is that the sheer amount of paper (printed both sides, if I recall correctly) made a careful reading of Father's instructions, commentary, educational materials etc. somewhat difficult, and usually I would set the bulletin aside meaning to give it careful attention later--only to find myself bringing home a near-book-length set of papers the next week, as well, until I had a month's worth of unread bulletins and no time at all to do more than glance at them.

Still, a "From the Pastor's Desk" column or something similar would seem to me to be the best way to improve many parish bulletins.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When pastors dream

I thought this comic strip might elicit a chuckle or two from the handful of priests who read this blog regularly.

I know, as a Catholic lay woman, what kinds of concerns and troubles about the present-day state of things in the Church in America I might express to pastors; in fact, I've expressed some of them before, both here and directly to priests. But I sometimes wonder: what would our pastors like to see happen in their parishes? What, if given a forum like Rat's idea of the Breaking News: Church Bulletin Edition, would our spiritual fathers like to say?

And since the question goes both ways, I'll also ask Catholic lay people: if your parish had a church bulletin discussing in frank openness the real problems of the parish, what would you like to see addressed, and why?

Non-Catholic readers can feel free to chime in about their places of worship, as well. Tell me below: if your place of worship had a bulletin like the one Rat is writing in the comic--what troubles would hard-hitting investigative reporting uncover?

For all three groups: would the headlines be about a lack of giving? of discipleship? of dedication? Would they focus on music, or liturgy, or religious education? What other issues would be addressed in a real parish newspaper--in your parish?

Friday, February 18, 2011

To none does He give license to sin

Did you see the story about the little boy who had a near-death experience, and came back talking about Heaven? Excerpt:

Miraculously, after a difficult recovery and another surgery, Colton survived. But his story is far from over.

There were things Colton did and things he said after the surgery that were out of the ordinary, but none of it made sense until a drive past the hospital four months after the surgery.

His Dad jokingly asked Colton if he wanted to go back to the hospital.

Colton's response? "You know Dad, the angels sang to me while I was there," the boy said. [...]

But perhaps the most shocking part of Colton's story, the baby he never knew about.

One day while Colton was playing he walked up to his mom, and out of the blue asked, "Mom, I have two sisters, you had a baby die in your tummy didn't you?"

Sonja was shocked and overwhelmed by what her little boy had just said. When she asked him who told him, he said, "she did Mommy, she said she died in your tummy."

Todd and Sonja had never told their son about the miscarriage Sonja had before Colton was born. After all, it was more than a four-year-old would ever need to know.

Colton went on to tell his mom that she was a girl and, "she looked familiar and she started giving me hugs and she was glad to have someone in her family up there."

Beautiful, isn't it?

C. S. Lewis wrote several times about how our choices each day make us a little bit more of a heavenly creature--or more of a hellish one. To be a heavenly creature, we have to have the faith, obedience, and trust of a small child; we have to believe in God, trust what He has told us, and seek to follow Him with all our hearts.

That's why, even when discussions like the one we've been having all week about the morality of lying seem like hair-splitting or mere academic thinking, they really are about more than that. In order to choose the good, we must first know it; we can't get into the habit of thinking that our feelings or gut instincts or other criteria are a replacement for careful discernment enlightened by reason and thought.

It's often possible to feel as though a certain thing must be right, and then to do our absolute best to rationalize those feelings. Certainly, sometimes good can happen when we do that--but there's no guarantee that we won't be choosing evil. After all, some of those, clerics or lay people, who defended pedophile priests felt as though a handful of credible allegations of abuse from a couple decades ago should not outweigh the demonstrable good the priest was doing in the parish in the present day. They were wrong, plain and simple; but one can understand how they might feel as they so clearly did, or do, feel.

Similarly, some people might feel as though Bishop Olmsted was wrong to strip a certain hospital of its Catholic identity, because they feel as though the woman in the case was entitled to an abortion; others might feel as though a certain priest/exorcist really didn't commit the violations of chastity he said he did, or if he did, well, the situation was complicated, and in the case of a priest who is a pro-life hero we perhaps ought to overlook a peccadillo or two.

One big problem with all of this is that our feelings are rarely derived from morality, and frequently derived from our tribalistic impulses. We judge those who are not of our way of thinking much, much more harshly than those whose views we share and whose actions we would like to approve. In Lila Rose we see a brave heroine saving babies by daring and unconventional means, and so we don't want to have to question her methods too closely, lest we discover that they aren't really all that sound, or that there might be something morally problematic about some of them.

That's understandable, and human. But it's not necessarily good.

Peter Kreeft, whom I usually respect, has written a post essentially saying that when our gut instincts tell us something is moral and right, then it probably is, regardless of hair-splitting legalism. He thinks that we ought to emulate children, too, but assumes that children are not high-sticklers for the rules, and will readily understand violations of the rules when circumstances seem to demand it. Perhaps it is because I am a mother who has witnessed plenty of children's play, but I would disagree right away with the premise: children demand the rules. It is children most of all who are sticklers for playing games "by the book," and who will quickly refuse to play with a child who alters the rules of the game at will--even if the child's motives are to favor the younger members of the group, and give them a better chance of winning. "But that's not fair!" some of the older children will cry, disregarding the purity of their teammate's motive as irrelevant to the discussion.

But Kreeft goes on to say:

If you were watching your son or daughter being raped while you were disarmed and tied up and had only words as weapons, and if there was some lie you could tell to the rapist that would stop him, do you really mean to tell me that you would not tell that lie? If so, I thank God that you were not my father.

I know there are universal, objective moral absolutes. I know that a good end does not justify an evil means. I know that we should not ever murder or rape or blaspheme even to save the world. But I think your child would probably understand that. In the above horrible scenario, if the rapist could be deterred only by watching you rape or murder some other victim, or defecate on a crucifix, you should not do it—and your child, his victim, would probably understand that. But your child would certainly not understand why you could not save him by lying to the rapist.

I'm having trouble thinking of a lie that would stop the rapist in that situation. "The police are here!" will be demonstrably false, and would probably get you more suffering. "My child has [insert names of various diseases here]!" probably won't do anything, either. In fact, the hypothetical is about as real as the "ticking time bomb" scenario--which is to say, not very real at all.

But it's the second paragraph where the trouble really starts. No, the child most emphatically will not understand why you can't rape or murder someone else or abuse a crucifix--especially that!--in order to save him. In point of fact, your child will truly not understand if all the would-be rapist wants you to do is commit an act of grave blasphemy, and you refuse to do it--what, you refused to say some words insulting God or commit some act of desecration against Him rather than watch your own flesh and blood suffer in so horrific a way? But we know that blasphemy is gravely morally wrong--or are we going to begin to say that, like lying, blasphemy may be all right in situations where you don't really mean it and are under duress?

The bottom line, though, is that asking what you or I might do in so terrible a situation isn't really germane to the discussion of what is or isn't sinful. I admit--to my shame--that in such a situation I would probably sin to save people I love. I hope that I would have the strength to avoid sinning gravely. But to say for certain that I do is presumption.

Again, however, we go back to one glaring, blinding, scintillating difference between all of these scenarios and what Lila Rose is doing. There is no duress. There is no immediacy. They are not even telling the lie "Oh, the abortion clinic is closed today!" to potential customers in a last-ditch effort to save babies (note: I'm not saying that would be morally correct, but just offering it as a different hypothetical where the purpose would be the immediate saving of at least one human life). Instead, they are hoping to catch Planned Parenthood workers willing to flout the mandatory reporting laws by agreeing to aid a group of non-existent underage sex workers. That might be a good motive overall, but is it the kind of immediate, dire, life-or-death situation where even if a lie remains at least a venial sin objectively the culpability for lying might theoretically be lessened to the point of nonexistence? No, and no, and no again.

Our moral choices are important; they are, as Lewis said, making us a little more heavenly or a little more hellish each day. Lila Rose and Live Action may be acting with sincerity and courage and under the mistaken impression that the sort of deception they're engaging in is morally acceptable, and no one is judging the souls of anyone involved. But to the extent that we refuse to consider the moral reasoning and opt instead for our feelings or gut instincts, we are moving away from putting God's law first in our lives, and toward the credo "If it feels good, do it!" Which is not a terribly sound way to follow God, even if our intentions are good and our motives as pure as the driven snow.

Last Sunday's first reading from Sirach gives us a little idea of what is at stake in these discussions:
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin. (Sirach 15: 15-20)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The truth that sets us free

I've been pondering the topic of whether or not lying of the sort that Live Action engaged in is ever justified, having followed some of the writing about it here and there.

As I've read and participated in some of the discussions, I've started to have the uneasy feeling that we've had this sort of theological debate before, in the Catholic blogosphere. Only last time around, the sin being discussed was the sin of torture, the would-be exculpatory scenario the infamous Ticking Time Bomb (TTB) scenario, and the justification for its use the idea that agents of the state have the right to torture people in the interest of public safety.

Of course, the fact that agents of the state are involved does not make something that is intrinsically evil suddenly good. Agents of the state, for instance, may not murder. If they are carrying out a lawful execution they do not commit murder, by definition; but if a guard shoots a docile prisoner as that prisoner is being marched to the execution chamber, he is guilty of murder--and murder is intrinsically evil by definition.

So we can't pretend that agents of the state may lie without being guilty of lying (ordinarily a sin of much lesser gravity than the sins of murder and torture, of course). What some people are presently pondering is whether certain untruths are actually lies, given some rather restricted circumstances--for example, in those situations where you are protecting a potential victim from his would-be killers, or where you are being unjustly forced to reveal knowledge you are morally bound to keep secret.

It is my completely un-scholarly opinion that the answer, ultimately, will be: no, you still can't tell an actual, honest-to-goodness lie, not even in these situations, without committing a sin, at least objectively. Your moral culpability may be greatly lessened or even completely absent, but the action itself is still sinful. But, like I said, that's my opinion as an average Catholic laywoman trying to sort this stuff out. For all I know, moral theologians may be able to work out a definition of lying that totally exempts situations in which one's life or the life of another is at stake or the information is being unjustly coerced, where an untruth of sorts somehow manages not to be a lie. But I don't really see how that will work, any more than I ever bought the idea that some form of painful coercion might somehow be defined as "not-torture" when circumstances seemed to demand it.

Still, that's not--thankfully--my call. Moreover, it has nothing to do with the Live Action situation. The Live Action people are not responding under duress to unjust examiners, nor are they being pressed to reveal information they are pledged to keep secret. Instead, they are entering clinics knowing ahead of time that they will be holding a false conversation containing numerous lies. I am sure they are courageous, and I'm also sure they are convinced that the purpose of their actions justifies the methods--but morally speaking we reject such reasoning as consequentialism, the idea that the morality of an action depends on the actions consequences.

But there's a larger point here. When the TTB scenarios kept cropping up in the torture debates, people like Mark Shea responded by reminding everyone that the questions raised should not be "How close can I come to committing the evil act of torture without quite crossing that line?" or "What exceptions that will allow me to commit acts of torture against Truly Evil Bad Guys can be carved out?" but "How can I fulfill Christ's commandment to love my neighbor as myself?"

I think we're seeing the same sort of thing here. Instead of asking "How can we justify some lying when it's for a Really Good Cause?" or "How can we define lying so as to permit it in some really excusable circumstances?" we should be asking ourselves, "How can I fulfill God's desire that His children speak the truth in charity?"

Putting the question that way forces us to think of our duty to speak the truth not as something that simply or mainly impacts ourselves alone, but that is something we owe our neighbor both in justice and in mercy. It is, for instance the truth about abortion--the full, ugly, horrific truth--that has led to the conversions of some abortionists and clinic workers; sometimes they encountered this truth for years before their hearts turned away from the evil, and other times it took just one graphic encounter for them to realize the evil, but the truth was the weapon that set them free.

If we truly love our neighbors, even the ones who work in abortion clinics, we will not see them as hopelessly depraved and beyond conversion such that it's just fine to lie to them. We will, instead, continue to confront evil with the most powerful weapon we have: the truth. It is, after, the Way, the Truth, and the Life Who Himself sets each of us free from the evils of sin and calls us to spend eternity in happiness with Him forever; we can offer no less to every person than what we have ourselves received.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Truth be told

Mark Shea dives in again to the question as to whether the Live Action operatives who conduct sting operations against Planned Parenthood are exempt from the Catechism's prohibition against lying. Short answer: no.

It seems pretty clear: we are not permitted to tell deliberate lies, not even when we think we have good motives. Not every act of deception is a lie, of course, and thus not every act of deception is a sin--but when we tell someone, on purpose, something which is not true it's pretty hard to cover that under some sort of an exemption.

In the discussions about this matter, people have brought up undercover journalism and undercover police work--and even the "mystery shopper" whose purpose is to check up on customer service in a way that seemingly tricks employees. While some of these things don't necessarily involve outright lying, to the extent that any of them do they are not any more morally permissible than any other sort of lying. However, it would be necessary to scrutinize such situations rather deeply to determine whether such pretenses actually rise to the level of lies, and in fact, at least as far as police work goes, I believe that police officers must be rather careful to avoid telling the kind of outright lies that will make prosecution of the alleged criminal difficult or impossible from a legal perspective.

Most situations involving pretense also involve people who are aware that a pretense is going on. Actors, writers, and others who craft or perform fiction don't have to worry that they are lying to audiences when they pretend to be "Mr. John Smith," or when they write that Alice screamed as she entered the living room and discovered the body; viewers and readers know that the actor pretending to be Mr. Smith is not any such person, and that the account of Alice's subsequent adventures as the person unjustly suspected of murdering her Great-Aunt Hildegarde for the sake of her inheritance is not meant to be a history, but merely a pleasurable escape from reality. Even in the hypothetical "mystery shopper" case, it is quite possible that employees of the company have been told in no uncertain terms that the store employs such people, and that for their own sake they should act as though every customer is evaluating the store's customer service--as, indeed, every customer may be, though only a handful will be paid to do so.

But are Live Action's video tactics covered under these sorts of provisions? I hardly think so. The operatives who enter the abortion clinics are pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute, engaged in prostituting underage girls who will then need the clinic's services should they become pregnant. They can't enter into this deception without lying (though it is interesting to speculate as to whether, if they could do so, they would then be able to conduct their "sting" without any moral issues). They are not merely withholding the truth from those who don't deserve to have it. They are not practicing reticence, nor engaging in theatrical performance. This is not some harmless prank of the "Candid Camera" variety--and the fact that the harm meant is directed towards a palpably evil organization does not change the morality of the act of lying.

To say this is not to doubt the courage displayed by these people, nor the fact that their motive is to put a dent in the lucrative and evil abortion industry--but evil means don't become good because the people employing them are courageous or because the people they are directed against are engaging in evil; we've been over all of that in the torture debate, haven't we?

The truth is that no matter how much we might wish to believe that Live Action's tactics are morally sound, we ought to know better than that. Truth be told, abortion will only end when it is fought against with the truth--that human beings are, from the moment of conception, intrinsically worthy children of God, made in His image, and worthy of love and protection. But we can't illustrate that truth very well if we treat some of God's children as objects whose only value lies in their being tricked into revealing Planned Parenthood's evil secrets.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trust has to be earned

If you haven't read the news from last week out of Philadelphia detailing the arrests of priests charged in connection with child sex abuse or with intentionally covering up these crimes--well, be warned. The horrific accounts, particularly as detailed in the grand jury indictment, are not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach--and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was not able to read through the indictment myself, so don't click the "grand jury" pdf link in the news article above if you're as likely as I am to be made sick by the charges.

John Mullane of the Bucks County Courier Times offers a measured and insightful commentary (hat tip: Deacon Kandra):
It was tough to read the latest grand jury report on resurgent child sex abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Maybe Cardinal Justin Rigali should declare moral bankruptcy. [...]

Five years after a previous grand jury documented the molestation of hundreds of children by 63 archdiocesan priests, 37 clergy with "credible" allegations of abuse remain in active ministry.

His Eminence Rigali won't say who they are, or where they are, or what the allegations are.

This is a catastrophe. Since the priest sex scandals first broke in Boston in 2002, eight U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy from paying damages to victims. [...]

What took generations of Catholics to build is being destroyed at the hands of bishops who are the most inept, corrupt bunglers since Johann Tetzel sold indulgences on behalf of Pope Leo X.

In addition to "the media," our bishops have placed blame on gays, "liberal culture," the "breakdown of society," and the Jews.

In an address to the faithful via YouTube last weekend, Cardinal Rigali didn't bother to mention Bevilacqua's role in the scandal, or how the scandal was allowed to fester for decades, or why it continues on his watch.

At a time when the traditional family is under assault, marriage is threatened with redefinition, and we have reached the grim milestone of 50 million abortions since 1973, our bishops have shredded their moral credibility and left us, the people in the pews and the good priests and nuns who minister to us, feeling shamed, humiliated, angry and doubting. We are open to attack.

To read the grand jury report is to invite a crisis of faith.

Harsh words--and there are harsher in the piece, which I recommend. But Mullane doesn't leave it there:

But before heading to the exits, Catholics should consider this.

Judas was an apostle.

That is to say, the church from its earliest days, has been convulsed with heartbreaking scandal. [...]

That's where dispirited Catholics are now. Such ordeals serve to strengthen faith, John of the Cross said, but they are hellish to experience.

If only Rigali would preach that, instead of conferring with lawyers.

Read the whole thing--even my rather lengthy excerpts can't do the piece justice.

Why do I like Mullane's commentary so much? Because, to me, Mullane covers the two most basic--and yet paradoxical--aspects of the Scandal:

1. There is no excuse, none, for priestly abuse of children--and there is even less of an excuse for diocesan officials all the way up to the bishop's office to collude in a cover-up of such abuse, which must be called the evil that it was--and, perhaps, still is.

2. Despite the shattered trust Catholics may have in their bishops stemming from the Scandal and its aftermath, the Church remains the institution founded by Christ as the ordinary means of salvation for mankind.

How do we reconcile these two things? How can we possibly continue to respect the office of the bishop while losing trust in so many individual bishops? Where do we go from here?

One answer is the reminder, as Mullane points out, that whenever we put our trust in individual human beings we are liable to be shaken. All human beings are weak, fallible, sinful, liable to cowardice in the face of evil, untrustworthy, prone to dishonesty, capable of putting the best possible spin on our worst possible motives or actions--yes, all of us, myself very much included. To the extent that bishops are men they are no more exempt from these things than any of us; yet some of their failures have an impact on all of us, because certain of their failures tend to involve a betrayal of their offices and their callings.

Other answers point to the historical reality that while the Church is the Bride of Christ, she has often suffered from sinful leaders, sometimes all the way up to the papacy. That she has continued to teach the fullness of truth and offer sacramental grace is nothing short of miraculous, considered against that depressing history. Yet she has, and still does.

But though we may struggle to articulate these and other answers, the fact that many, many leaders in the Church, including bishops and archbishops, failed so miserably to treat the victims of abuse like the suffering children in Christ they were, instead seeing them as threats, problems, and liabilities, has to be faced. I wish I could say with certainty that the hard lessons of the Scandal have been learned at last, and that today's present members of the hierarchy would stand with the victims, refusing to act as though the victims themselves were really the trouble in any future situations--but I simply can't say that. Human beings are so slow to learn these kinds of lessons, and the instinct of preservation is strong enough in secular institutions--it should not surprise us that it is equally strong, or possibly at times even stronger, in religious ones.

What should we do? What can we do?

Pray, of course; that ought to go without saying. But there's something else, something that may surprise some of you--at least, that it's coming from me.

Trust has to be earned, and sadly, our bishops and church leaders have predominantly been untrustworthy in dealing with the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors by ordained clergy. I think that the biggest mistake any person can make in the present day and age is taking any allegations of abuse by a clergy member only to the Church. Certainly, in the horrible event that you or someone you love has experienced any such abuse, the diocese ought to be informed. But in my view of things, that call should be made with a copy of the police report in hand and one's lawyer at one's side.

Frankly, that's what I'd counsel people to do if they are the victims of abuse regardless of who the perpetrator is: clergy member, teacher, coach, family friend, etc. We don't report other crimes by going to the perpetrator's employer or place of business; we go, or should go, to the authorities. I think those Catholics who went to the Church first did so out of the sincerity of their trust in the Church, their appreciation for her, and their belief that her agents would always do what was morally right and good first and foremost, with considerations about what was good for the Church's image far, far removed from the moral imperative. Perhaps, someday, Church leaders will again be trustworthy in that regard--but that day is far away, and we've seen too many examples of grotesque failure to protect children to believe blindly that going straight to the diocese with a report of abuse is the first or best thing to do.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More than tokens

Happy feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius!

Oh, and happy St. Valentine's Day, too, of course. :)

Much as it pains me to disagree slightly with the great Simcha Fisher, I have to say that I really am one of those women who doesn't want, need, or expect any particular token or gesture today. I like going out for dinner on our wedding anniversary when we can, and I appreciate very much Thad's gift-giving efforts on my birthday, at Christmas, and even on Mother's Day when theoretically he's just helping the girls pick something out. But the way Valentine's Day is celebrated in modern America, I've tended to tune the whole thing out--and this was true long before I found my true love and got married and had three beautiful daughters.

Don't get me wrong; I have no objection to Valentine's Day-themed candy around the house, especially in those years when Valentine's Day doesn't fall during Lent. And I don't mind making a nice dinner, either, or exchanging some homemade cards. But all the rest of it, the flowers and restaurant reservations and gifts ranging from cute and inexpensive to heart-shaped chunks of seriously overpriced jewelry, just seems like our American culture's usual tendency to take a good thing and run it to the ground via a process whereby multinational corporations convince American consumers that they really, really need heart-themed kitchen towels and pink and white lacy place mats made in (country redacted) to create a truly Meaningful Special Important Valentine's Day Experience with their Loved Ones.

Here again, though, don't get me wrong: that's just me.

Whenever I've written about holidays and gift-giving and couples, the one thing I've said is that each husband and wife should communicate openly and honestly about what they expect, want, desire, etc.--as well as communicating openly and honestly about things like budget, stress, and the nonavailability of seasoned baby-sitters to take over a household full of small children on a school night. Family experience plays an important role here; my own parents never made a big deal out of Valentine's Day, and I'm sure that influences my outlook--but I know women whose mothers spent the beginning of February in a fever of anticipation (sometimes, alas, culminating in an all-out plague of disappointment), and for them being ignored on Valentine's Day is the equivalent of having one's husband spend the couple's anniversary watching ESPN alone in a sports bar: not a good thing, in other words.

So when trouble arises, as trouble sometimes does, it's because one spouse thinks Valentine's Day should be a romantic evening out followed by the exchanging of some pretty significant gift items, while the other spouse thinks that Valentine's Day is an excuse for florists to raise their prices, for restaurants to offer "specials" as a way of clearing out that shipment of iffy chicken they got in last week, and for card-companies to make a killing. And if one person simply pretends that he or she is okay with the other person's way of doing--or not doing--things, sooner or later the truth will come out, usually with a lot of hurt feelings and recriminations along the way.

Which is really a pity. Because far more important than flowers or chocolates or trinkets or evenings out to the health of a relationship is open and honest communication--not just once in a while on major or minor holidays, but all the time. Words of love, of friendship and appreciation, nourish a relationship and help it grow; honesty about feelings, even about how one really feels about Valentine's Day, for instance, is necessary to the relationship between two people who love each other.

Tokens of love are important (though the specific days on which they are exchanged will vary from couple to couple, as I said before). But sometimes here in America I think we make the tokens more important than the reality they are meant to express, and nowhere is that more evident than in a nation which spends more than seventeen billion dollars on a holiday celebrating love and relationships--and in which so many marriages end in divorce.

Happy birthday, Rod Dreher!

Readers of Rod Dreher's old blog will recall that today is his 44th birthday. I recall Rod's various birthday posts over the years, and miss that sort of writing; he is very gifted at the blend of poignance, reflection, honesty, and wry, self-deprecating humor that has characterized many of the best American writers.

Since Rod isn't blogging at present, I hope that some of his former Crunchy Con readers will join me here in wishing him a very happy birthday. Rod, a blessed and happy birthday to you, and God grant you many years!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Because she made me laugh

As I've mentioned here before, our youngest, age 12, is an avid amateur cartoonist. Just about every weekday she comes up with a new adventure for her characters, Sneaky Ninja Dude and his aggravating sidekick Crazy Cat. Today's was especially funny, so I want to share it here:


Some joyful news

My sister-in-law has some good news to share!

Now I have two sisters-in-law having babies this year--which means my children will have two more cousins before the end of the year! Woohoo! :)

You may recall that I'm the second of nine children. Five of us are married, one is a nun, and the youngest three haven't begun to live a vocation in the world as of yet.

My parents will be welcoming their twenty-first grandchild this year. Twenty-one members of a new generation of practicing Catholics, one-third of whom (seven) are E.F. Mass-attendees who toss Latin around the way other teens toss slang (and those seven are all boys--so maybe a few priestly vocations, dear nephews?). I say this not to boast of my family, but to strike a little holy terror into the hearts of the womynpriest, contracepting, pro-abortion, anti-Rome Catholics who may peek at this blog on occasion--because it's families like mine who are the future of the Church, whether you like us or not!

Congratulations to Waltzing Matilda and my dear brother! We can't wait to meet your newest little one!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The choice that puts them out of business

There's a new push underway to enact new laws restricting abortion--and, as usual, those who favor abortion aren't pleased:

From bans on late-term abortions to requiring providers to offer women sonograms of their fetuses, conservative lawmakers in the United States are pushing abortion curbs this year in dozens of states.

Some bills may have a greater chance of success this year than in the past because there are more conservative legislators and governors.

"I am actually looking forward to a number of victories," said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of the department of state legislation of the National Right to Life Committee.

"We're very worried," said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. Crane said that because anti-abortion forces have more votes, "the flood gates are open."

What kinds of laws have Crane worried? Here's a sample:

Among the more than 200 bills being proposed this year are an Ohio measure that would ban abortions once a heartbeat can be detected -- as early as 18 days for some women.

In several states, including Ohio, Florida, Kansas and Kentucky, measures were introduced banning abortion after 20 weeks. These mimic a Nebraska law which bans abortion after a fetus is deemed capable of feeling pain.

Lawmakers also are proposing bills that would limit abortion coverage in state health plans under the new healthcare law, and new parental consent requirements, according to Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization.

There's also a Texas measure that would require women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound first--though she has the right not to view the image of her unborn baby or hear the description of the unborn baby's stage of development--or listen to his heartbeat--if she chooses not to.

I often wonder just why these sorts of measures rile the so-called "pro-choice" side so much (before I remember that "pro-choice" really means "in favor of the choice to abort; not really in favor of the choice to stay pregnant for nine months and then give birth"). Why shouldn't we want women "choosing" abortion to have all relevant information, including information about the human being at the fetal stage whom she is about to have killed? If there's nothing wrong with abortion, why shouldn't she spend a few minutes viewing something like this before saying, "Okay, go ahead and kill her," to the attending abortionist?

And why shouldn't we enact laws forbidding abortion after twenty weeks? Do we really have such a poor view of women that we think that it's going to take her a whole twenty weeks to decide to end the life of the developing human being inside of her? Even if, like most women, she doesn't realize she is pregnant for four to six weeks after conception, she's had more than enough time to ponder her "choice" by the time the unborn child inside of her is this big, don't you think?

The truth is that abortion is the one "choice" that seems to depend on women being ignorant, afraid, pressured, scared, emotional, and irrational. Pro-"choice" activists know this, which is why they oppose any legislation that brings the true nature of this "choice" out into the open.

Pro-aborts are afraid that women, presented with the full truth about abortion, will choose life instead. That is the choice that puts them out of business--and that's why they oppose sensible restrictions to abortion whenever such legislation is offered.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In which I ramble about veils, again

I've been looking at cars online much of the afternoon; we're trying to decide what to do, if and when our elderly minivan finally gives up

Anyway, I thought I might write a quick follow-up to yesterday's veil post, because an email I exchanged with a reader sparked an interesting train of thought.

To begin with, though, let's look at this recent comment from Father Z.'s poll/post:
Why does the head covering always have to be a 19th-century mediterranean mantilla – or whatever it is? You might as well wear an ancient Athenian helmet. What’s the idea here? Cover the hair? Cover the top of the head? Look almost like a (habited) nun while retaining enough distinction to show you’re not? Would a zaccheto do? Would a chador be too much?
Which of the Easter bonnets in the movie Easter Parade would suffice?
I have often wondered about that, too. And I give major props to the next commenter at Father Z.'s, who shares the link to this hat, which certainly fits the bill if the goal is simply to cover the hair!

A traditionalist website to which I will not link (a policy of mine) asserts that Christian women have practiced "veiling" for two thousand years; this "veiling" took place when women entered a church or were in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I tend to smile, a little, at such statements--because there is such a false impression given by them. We see, in our mind's eye, a simple European peasant girl, passing by a church on a weekday; she pauses, makes the sign of the cross, carefully drapes a large and elegant lace veil over her head, and enters to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament...

But a quick visit to the paintings of someone like Jean Francois Millet shows us what that peasant girl would more likely be wearing--a simple twist of some rough fabric, which she wore all the time to cover her head, not just when she happened to pass a church. Some nicer fabric, or an actual hat, might repose in her closet for Sunday; but lace, in the days before machine-made lace, was impossibly expensive and not likely to belong to most Catholic women.

In fact, a single lace mantilla in Madrid in the year 1830 could cost today's American equivalent of six hundred to two thousand dollars. Middle-class women scrimped and saved to afford mantillas with lace borders, while poorer women made do with fabric mantillas in the best fabric they could afford.

Did they do this to honor the Lord? Well, according to a book written in that time, in Madrid in 1830 women in the middle and lower classes still wore their mantillas as their "everyday" head coverings. Only the wealthiest women--the ones with the fanciest veils--started saving their mantillas for church and wearing the newer (and even more costly!) European hats to the theater and other social venues.

How it is that the mantilla, a particularly Spanish form of head covering, became the preferred head covering of traditional women in America in the twenty-first century is truly puzzling. Sure, in some sections of the American Southwest where the Hispanic population has always been sizable, the mantilla may truly be the more traditional head covering for Catholic women; but I suspect that for the rest of America, the culprit is really the chapel veil.

Although "chapel veil" and "mantilla" are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. The chapel veil has always been an abbreviated veil; even Protestant women sometimes wore them--on their wedding day--provided that the dress didn't call for a full-length veil. By the time most Catholic women began carrying a little square of lace inside its own special pouch in their purses, the custom of wearing hats for all formal occasions, including church, had begun to die down. Prior to that time, if a woman was outdoors at all, she was wearing something on her head: a hat, a bonnet, a scarf. But by the 1920s, the female custom of wearing a hat anytime a woman was outside had begun to decline; the two World Wars and their various effects made hat-wearing less and less frequent, so that by about the 1950s it was necessary for a Catholic woman to make some provision for an "emergency" head-covering in case she needed to enter a church at some time when she wasn't already wearing a hat.

The chapel veil filled that purpose, and made it even less necessary for women to wear hats. Photos of the inside of American Catholic churches during Mass prior to 1960 showed rows of women in hats, but after that time, the hats started to disappear; some, certainly, replaced by "emergency" veils, but some replaced by nothing at all.

The truth was that the sign of the covered head, as explained by St. Paul, really had lost its force. Women had been wearing head coverings, many of them bonnets or hats, and rarely a veil of lace, for centuries--not just at Mass, but any time they were out in public. The head covering had become merely a matter of fashion--and when, as fashions do, it began to disappear altogether, the original meaning behind St. Paul's exhortation for women to cover their hair (not merely their heads) had already been lost.

This is why I think that the practice of covering the head ought to remain voluntary, and not receive some sort of special mark of encouragement. It is not that women have become feminists and thus will revolt at the idea of anyone telling them they must wear an article of clothing that is rarely worn (and I mean the hat, here, not the veil). It is because St. Paul's meaning began to be lost when women began covering their heads with head-coverings which did not completely cover the hair, or which allowed it to remain visible--which occurred sometime around the seventeenth century, as near as I can tell, when those elaborate layered cloth head coverings were simplified to the point that the woman's hair was now quite visible around the sides of the cap or hat, and, depending on the hair style, draping down her back as well.

Nobody is calling for a return to the medieval wimple, in other words, or the medieval coif, either of which did a fine job of covering the woman's glory--that is, her hair. The preference, in fact, is for a transparent bit of cloth that permits the hair to be seen quite well.

Chapel veils can be quite pretty. Baseball caps are not, however--and does anyone really doubt that the result of a new mandate from Rome requiring women to cover their heads would not lead to plenty of women at Mass wearing Bermuda shorts, tee shirts, and the ball caps of their favorite teams? We can't impose a new vision of Catholic traditional culture on the present day and age by adopting as a custom something that was once used by most of our grandmothers as an emergency stop-gap; and if we really want Rome to clarify what St. Paul meant by covering our heads, we'd better be prepared to put away the lacy veils and figure out how to make a coif, wimple, or other head-covering that actually covers the hair.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Veil-wars and hat-battles

Father Z has a poll going on--and he's asking other Catholic bloggers, liberal, conservative, or other, to participate. The topic: should women wear head-coverings in church? Excerpt:
I ask fellow bloggers, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressivist, to help get the word out about this poll so we can have as large a sampling as possible.

You don’t have to be registered to be able to vote.

In another entry I presented the case of a woman asked by the priest not to wear a chapel veil when coming up to read at Mass.

The mantilla/chapel veil topic always generates lively discussion.

In the Latin Church it was once obligatory under Canon Law for women to ear a head covering in Church (veil or hat). At present it is not obligatory, but there seems to be a slow resurgence of this tradition. My opinion is that it should be revived.

Here is a WDTPRS POLL. You don’t have to be registered to vote. I ask fellow bloggers to help get the word out about this poll so we can have as large a sampling as possible.

As of right now, the votes are trending toward "Yes," meaning women should have to cover their heads in church. Interestingly, though, these "yes" votes are overwhelmingly male: 28% of those responding are men who think head coverings for women should return but be voluntary, while 24% of those responding are men who think head coverings for women should return and be obligatory. As of right now, only 5% of those voting are women who don't think the custom should return, while only 3% of those responding are men who don't think the custom should return.

I encourage all of my readers who are at all interested in this question to visit the link to the poll and vote (you don't have to register as a blog commenter to vote).

Full disclosure: I'm one of those who voted, "I am a female and no, this custom should not return." That shouldn't surprise anyone here, but I'd like to expand on it just a little.

I have no problem with individual women deciding they'd like to wear a head covering at Mass as an act of personal piety. But calling for the custom to return on even a voluntary basis means that the Church gets involved, and suggests to women that this is a practice she would like to see them adopt, though she makes no law requiring it. This would have the effect of dividing women into two camps: those who take all of the Church's suggestions very seriously and who adopt the head-covering even if, instead of being helpful to their spiritual growth, it has no such effect; and those who point out that the suggestion and encouragement lacks the force of law and can thus be ignored.

Can anyone doubt that there would soon be strife between these two groups of women? That in some parishes, a woman's reputation would suffer if she did not adopt the head-covering, while in others it would suffer if she did? That while the Church merely suggested and encouraged others would feel free to command and require? (Indeed, some feel free to command and require the head-covering now, when it is clearly not required at all.)

So long as voluntary head-covering for women is considered as an individual pious act no such bickering can long endure, but let the Church say that while women aren't required to they really ought to, and you will see a lot of time and energy wasted on veil-wars and hat-battles. And the last thing we need is something like that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Intentional Dissidents

As Kevin O'Brien has continued to write about the concept of intentional discipleship, I've been thinking about it, too. I like a lot of what Kevin says: that we can't "make disciples" or do much of anything else without the grace of God; that we are all His unworthy instruments, and can only do our best.

This is not to say that I think the Making Disciples (tm) program is necessarily a bad thing. Like other parish programs like Why Catholic or any of these parish evangelization programs, the Siena Institute's program should be appreciated for its efforts and may be quite helpful in parishes. In fact, since I haven't gone through this particular program nothing I write should be taken as a direct criticism of the program itself--which probably, like most such programs, has valuable strengths and perhaps a few weaknesses here and there which may be ironed out as the years go by.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Church here in America isn't really suffering primarily from a lack of Christian discipleship--not as such, that is. I think what we are suffering from are the Intentional Dissidents.

There are, at the parish level, quite a lot of unintentional dissidents. Forty-plus years of execrable catechesis combined with poor leadership and liturgy ranging, in most places, from the dull and uninspiring to the irreverent and shocking has had its foreseeable effect. (And right now there are Catholics reading this who are muttering to themselves, "What I wouldn't give for my parish to have merely execrable catechesis, only poor leadership, and just dull liturgy!") Add to these things the influence of pop culture, and it's not really all that surprising to hear a sweet-looking elderly lector-lady or long-time volunteer usher tell you that of course the Church has always oppressed and suppressed women, who used to be priests before Constantine got hold of things. These same people, or their counterparts, will tell you sincerely that "Vatican II" changed everything, that nobody really goes to Hell anyway, or that their pastor told them "back in the day" that contraception was fine in their case, so long as they really felt justified using it (which, naturally, they did). Some of them will agree that gay marriage will be embraced by the Church one day, because after all some book or other proved that gays used to have lavish Church weddings back in the days of the Medici--or did they mean the Borgias? Anyway, all that anti-gay stuff was made up by St. Paul, who took all those nice sayings of that nice preacher-revolutionary we call Jesus and twisted them to be mean and hateful against women, gays, and--well--anybody else Paul didn't like.

All of these things are the tenets of Tommy Nutting, whose credo, "Jesus was be nice too..." is the sum total of the deposit of faith as far as many American Catholics today are concerned. I wouldn't like to give an opinion as to whether the abysmal ignorance displayed by the many is evidence of invincible ignorance, or merely a stubborn and rather rooted version of the vincible kind, but either way ignorance of the faith is all too common among Catholics in America in the year 2011.

But it's the intentional dissidents who cause the most problems. They're the ones who can recite relevant Catechism passages as to why contraception is gravely morally wrong--right before they shrug and say something like, "Naturally, you don't have to accept any of that to be a good Catholic." They're the ones who are all for obeying bishops when bishops pronounce against capital punishment--and all for ignoring those same bishops when they speak out against abortion, especially if such pro-life episcopal speech is in any way inconvenient to their future career plans or political ambitions.

Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are Intentional Dissidents of the sort I mean; so, apparently, is Sister Marlene Weisenbeck:
You might remember that precisely at the time where Catholics needed to show their firm opposition to any forced participation in abortion, Sr Weisenbeck led a charge of dissident women who hoped to provide enough cover for the Obama administration to pass a bill that in the future can "codify Roe v Wade." Since FOCA became widely unpopular, the president chose to make his health care legislation the foundation for unlimited abortion funding. Frantic for power and prestige these sisters lead by Weisenbeck publicly opposed the Catholic Church's long held teaching that every life is sacred. I was told that Weisenbeck was called to Rome after that debacle which it seems has not affected her interest in pursuing her political career. Obviously this appointment tells the real story behind her opposition of pro-life efforts and the USCCB. She scratches Obama's back and he scratches hers. Do you think she'll get a pen now too? [All links and emphasis in original--E.M.].
Alas; there was a day when such sycophantic betrayal might get you Wales; now, Sister will be lucky to get a presidential pen. The truth is, there are so many Intentional Dissidents in the Church nowadays, lining up to betray Christ with a kiss, that their price has fallen rather. Sadly, I suspect there will still be dissident Catholics eager to trash the Church in public when they won't even get a campaign button out of it; such is the nature of dissidence, which always seeks to justify itself, and never can.

The problem with the Church in America is that there are too many Intentional Dissidents, and, perhaps, too few Intentional Disciples willing to upset the credo of niceness and stand up to them, calling them out on their betrayal of Christ and His Church. The dissidents have sought, for at least this past forty years, to make it seem as though Christ had divorced His mystical bride and could be followed in some meaningful way while she was excluded; but Christ and His Church are one, and to follow and obey one is to follow and obey the other.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The dark side of snow

Go see my sister-in-law's hilarious post from today, complete with a graphic showing how southerner's enjoyment of snow decreases over time.

I am not, of course, a southerner, as I am not a native Texan (though, as one local bumper sticker puts it, I got here as fast as I could). In fact, I spent almost the first decade of my life in Illinois, and have also lived in Nebraska, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, so it's not like I'm a total stranger to the idea of hugely inconvenient cold white stuff plopping down out of the sky with the kind of menacing beauty you expect from any of Mother Nature's divas.

This has made me something of a mystery to my southern-born children, who always greeted the advent of snow with glee, and could not understand their mother's total imperviousness to excitement about the whole thing. I told them, of course. I told them what it was like to have snowdrifts piled up against doors, to dig out, to spend the winter maneuvering among gray piled slush at the sides of the roads, to have to put on clothing items they don't even own (snow boots, heavy gloves, snow hats, snowsuits etc.) just to get to school, to be sent outside at recess in 20 degree weather (meaning a resumption of all of that winter panoply)--in short, I tried to tell them about the dark side of snow.

But being born in one southern state and spending the majority of their years thus far in another, they really had no idea. Not until this week.

This is the first time since they were very little that snow has been accompanied by temperatures too cold to permit much outdoor play time (and since we've been battling a slight but annoying winter cold around here, I didn't let them out in it at all). This is the first time they've not awoken the day after a snowfall to see and hear the evidence of aggressive melting--which they always used to lament, but now actually miss. This may not be the first time they've been inconvenienced by snow--the Christmas snowfall two years ago was a huge disruptor to our usual plans--but it is the first time the inconvenience has lingered long enough to be frustrating, and to produce some symptoms of cabin fever.

Still, we're not really experiencing the dark side of snow. The temperatures will rise into the forties tomorrow and Sunday (please, Lord!) and soon enough snow will melt to permit us to get out, do some grocery shopping, get to Mass on Sunday morning, and otherwise resume some normal activities. Given how long it will be before those we know in the Midwest will be able to do any such thing, we're really blessed to be in the South.

Of course, after hovering in the 40s and 50s until Tuesday, our temperatures will return to the upper 20s on Wednesday. And don't tell Waltzing Matilda, but on Wednesday we're also looking at another chance of snow...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The near occasion of sin

It has been a bad week for news about priests.

As I referred to in my post yesterday, it is being shown that some of Maciel's followers still--even now, after so much evidence of his life of wrongdoing--secretly or not-secretly believe he will eventually be vindicated as the living saint they thought he was. Will the difficulties presented by this attitude eventually derail any attempt to bring real and lasting reform to the LC/RC? God alone knows.

Today, there is news about the $77 million dollar settlement reached by the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware to compensate 146 people claiming abuse by clergy; the claims stretch back forty years, and involved diocesan priests and religious order priests:

Lawyers involved with the Delaware Catholic Diocese of Wilmington's $77 million settlement with nearly 150 alleged victims of sexual abuse said the church's agreement to release unredacted documents is a historic step toward making sure it doesn't happen again.

And lawyers for the alleged victims said they will post the documents on the Internet.

"When people see the documents, they will be able to judge for themselves" how the church dealt with pedophile priests, attorney John Manly said.

And there was also the news this week that popular priest Fr. Thomas Euteneuer released a statement in which he admitted to violations of chastity with an adult female under his spiritual care in the course of his somewhat unusual exorcism ministry.

With all of these items of news and information, there tend to be comments and conversations which reveal more about each person's view of the Church, the priesthood, sin, and the like than they do about the individual situation. On secular news sites, alas, the comments on matters like these tend to fall along anti-Catholic lines, blaming the Church, the celibate priesthood, the moral law, and similar things for clerical malfeasance. On Catholic websites, commentary seems to divide among three groups: those concerned primarily for the victims; those defending the priests accused or admittedly guilty of some wrongdoing on the grounds that they are otherwise good, holy men; and those who insist that any failure on the part of a priest is really the laity's fault for not praying more, offering more sacrifices, or inviting priests over to dinner more often.


Sin is not a proof that the Church is wrong about a celibate priesthood, nor is it proof that the Church is not an institution founded by Christ to serve as the ordinary means of salvation for all men. Sin is not self-justifying; that is, just because men and women fail to live up to the Church's teachings regarding sexual morality does not mean there is not really any such thing as sexual morality.

But sin is also not something to be brushed aside and overlooked simply because we admire the person or group of people involved in it. And while the laity certainly ought to pray and make sacrifices for priests as for all of the Body of Christ (and could clearly learn to be more hospitable, in some cases), priests sin for the same reason lay people do. We have free will. It is among God's greatest gifts to us, but it is also our gravest responsibility: to learn what is good, and to choose only what is good, regardless of the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Can we do that on our own? No. Hundreds of saints have told us so. Even St. Paul said, "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." (Romans 7:19). If any of us thinks we are strong enough on our own to avoid sin, we are being tempted by the worst sort of spiritual pride, and should seek the remedy of prayer, the Eucharist, good Confessions, and the other helps to our spiritual growth the Church offers us.

But this is why the Church also teaches us that we have a serious duty to avoid the near occasion of sin--because we are weak, all of us, and because failing to heed that warning and placing ourselves in the occasion of sin is the first step toward falling into sin, perhaps grave sin. For the priests who abused children, the sin did not simply begin one day; it was preceded by a lengthy period of slowly grooming the children to succumb, and this meant making the choice to be in the children's presence alone and to take some liberties in terms of personal contact which, though innocent enough to appearance, were already sinful in that the perpetrators were using these opportunities to break down the children's natural reserve and innocence. In other cases I've read about, priest abusers used the deadly combination of pornography and alcohol to "seduce" their preteen or teen victims; here, again, the occasion of sin had already been sought out and embraced before the crimes began.

Laity are not exempt from this moral imperative, avoiding the near occasion of sin, either. If a man thinks that he is far too moral and good to be tempted by the presence of a really attractive female co-worker on a business trip far away from home, he may discover to his shame that he was only a few drinks and a convenient hotel-room away from breaking his marriage vows. If a woman thinks that she can form close friendships with men other than her husband, enjoying the attention of what she thinks of to herself as harmless flirtations without ever planning to go any farther with this "game" of hers, she may also learn that she is ready to leave her family for a man she has been insisting is just a friend before very much time has passed. If an engaged couple thinks that of course their virtue is so strong that they will not be tempted by the fact that they've decided to spend an afternoon and evening watching movies alone in the young man's apartment, they may face the prospect of having to postpone the wedding until after the baby is born.

And though I've focused on sins against the sixth commandment, the same rules apply to the other commandments as well. A man who drives over to a rival's house in a fit of deadly anger may well end up in jail for a violent or even murderous act. A dishonest employee begins to steal from his employer not when he actually takes the money, but when he starts wondering how to convince another employee to break protocol and let him take the day's bank deposit to the bank alone. A woman's struggle with covetousness may be exacerbated by her subscription to magazines featuring perfect homes with expensive furnishings and appointments; a man's battle with laziness may end in defeat not when he squanders a day, but when he deliberately fails to set his alarm clock the night before; a woman's sins of gluttony may have their origin not in her binges, but in the act of placing the ice cream and chips into her shopping cart in the first place.

If, in our day and age, priests have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, I can't help but wonder if it isn't because our age focuses so little on sin, and on the things that lead to it. Priests are no more exempt from the rule of the avoidance of the near occasion of sin than anyone is--but I wonder, when I read the sad articles and recall the pain and confusion many Catholics felt at the height of the Scandal, whether some of them might not have forgotten it, as, indeed, many of us have done, and continue to do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The evanescent pedestal

From NCR's John Allen comes a report on the continued hero-worship for Maciel among some within the Legion of Christ/Regnum Christi:

Last fall, I wrote a piece on the progress of a Vatican-supervised reform of the Legionaries of Christ, the religious order founded by the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, in the wake of revelations that Maciel was guilty of various forms of sexual and financial misconduct.

At the time, I distinguished three currents with the Legionaries and their lay branch, Regnum Christi:

  • “True believers,” who play down Maciel’s failures and see current events as a trial sent by God;
  • “Realists,” who accept Maciel’s guilt and the need for reform, but who believe the vision and structures of the Legion are fundamentally sound;
  • “Root and branch reformers,” who essentially want to start over, beginning with getting rid of the current crop of superiors.

Though official acknowledgment of Maciel’s “reprehensible actions” by the Legionaries in 2010 obviously constituted a massive blow to the “true believer” camp, a widely read blog this week from an influential Mexican member of Regnum Christi shows that it still has some gas left in the tank.

The blog came from Lucrecia Rego de Planas, a Mexican laywoman and editor of “,” one of the most popular Catholic web portals in Spanish. In the posting, she suggests that “there is something yet to be discovered” about the supposedly “incontrovertible proof” shown to Pope Benedict XVI demonstrating Maciel’s guilt.

Rego de Planas takes her cue from the words of Christ in Matthew 7:17: “Every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.” She notes that Benedict XVI and other senior Vatican officials have repeatedly praised the zeal and deep faith of the Legionaries, and suggests that leaves only two options: either Jesus was a liar, or there’s something amiss about the case against Maciel.

She does not offer any specifics, but she indirectly suggests that the jury is still out on Maciel, saying the last word will not be spoken until “Judgment Day.”

Read the rest here.

It is sickening, saddening, and disheartening to learn that there are still members of Maciel's not-so-magic Kingdom who think that he died a persecuted saint, blameless and holy. While it is always good for Catholics and all Christians to cultivate a practice of thinking well of others, that does not mean that we're supposed to be foolish and deny the reality of evil, the ubiquity of sin, and the overwhelming evidence that Maciel was not ever a true shepherd, but a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Sickening, saddening, and disheartening, as I said. But not, alas, surprising.

We are, all of us, prone to the powerful temptation to think and speak well of those we consider our own--even when, and perhaps especially when, they are known to be guilty of some evil act or sinful conduct. We are equally susceptible to the temptation to think and speak ill of those who are not members of our particular tribe, even if they are guilty of lesser offenses. Above all of this, though, is the tendency--a bad one, indeed, for the serious Christian--to elevate certain people, whether priests, religious, or laity, to the status of rock stars or superheroes, and to close our ears and our minds should they have the misfortune by sin to slip away from the evanescent pedestals upon which we foolishly set them, and come crashing down all too hard into the mire of their own making.

By all reports, Maciel relished the human respect and fawning he was given in this life; had we had eyes to see, that alone would have been a sign to us to look away. People like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who shunned the limelight, abhorred special treatment, and sought Confession so very often for herself, set a much better example of how the soul sees itself the closer it draws to the Almighty God: as weak, foolish, helpless and sinful, not as strong, wise, powerful and holy. The surest sign that we still lag far away from holiness is that we think we might be approaching it, after all.

Yet among Maciel's followers there remain some--let us hope, a tiny handful--who took the man's assessment of his own holiness and worthiness of special treatment at face value, and who continue, even today, even when most of the worst sins of his misguided life have been revealed for all to see, to believe that all of that is mere falsehood, and that in the end their beloved Founder will be among the recognized saints in Heaven. I think we all must pray that there was some tiny spark of penitence in Maciel at the end of his life; but we must also realize that the merciful pope who ordered him to a life of penance before the end did not do so on a whim or on whispered rumors of evil things; the evil was real, and the damage to innocent victims was, and still is, terrible to behold.

Alas, the people who more than anyone helped Maciel avoid true repentance for however long he did so (even to the end, perhaps, though again our prayers must be that this was not the case) were not protecting their beloved hero, or standing with a saint against his evil scandal-mongering detractors. They were forcibly keeping him on that fraudulent pedestal, when perhaps some earlier and more substantial contact with the muck might have made him a model of real, public, humble, and sorrowful penitence before it was too late.